Phoenix Legend soars in international skies

Updated: 2012-05-17 13:50

By Chen Nan (

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Phoenix Legend, the hottest Chinese pop duo, has fans from all strata of the society and is fast gaining recognition overseas. Chen Nan reports in Beijing.

Basketball player Yao Ming is not the only Chinese export to NBA Houston Rockets. The music of Phoenix Legend, one of the hottest pop music groups in China, has also reached the NBA. One of their hit songs from three years ago, The Hottest Ethnic Trend, was used by cheerleaders during a NBA Houston Rockets game in April 2012.

"We have no idea how the songs reached America," says Ling Hua, 32, one of the two members of Phoenix Legend. The other half of the duo is 33-year-old Zeng Yi. "Maybe we should thank Yao Ming because NBA wants to attract more Chinese fans."

The song has also become an Internet sensation after being remixed and re-edited by fans across the world during the past several months.

In fact, this is not the first time that Phoenix Legend's songs have been improvised or heard internationally in a public setting. Workout dance instructor Wang Guangcheng has been mixing the duo's songs to the beats of salsa, disco and hip hop, and even brought their songs to the US Zumba Convention in 2010 and 2011.

Riding on the wave, the group is collaborating with Wang to release a new album in June, remixing their popular hits just for gyms.

Phoenix Legend sold more than 6 million albums in China since 2005, and 10 songs from their four albums have recorded one billion online hits.

Tickets to their first concert in Beijing, which was held in October 2010, sold out within 15 days, prompting the organizers to add an extra show. They repeated their success in 2011 with tickets gone within days.

If J-pop stands for Japanese pop music, K-pop for Korean, then Phoenix Legend must be the trendsetter for C (China)-pop. The duo's songs have a wide appeal with fans from migrant to white-collar workers, children to retirees. Their songs also rank high in the must-play list of public places, such as KTVs, restaurants and supermarkets.

What's so special about Phoenix Legend? Fans say they like Zeng's rap and find Ling's high-pitched voice and folk style, special. Some have dubbed them as "the savior of Chinese music industry", because of the popularity of their songs.

But there are also naysayers who consider their music to be out of date and meaningless. "There are lots of people who listen to Phoenix Legend but are reluctant to admit it," says Bi Hu, a fan of the duo. "They feel ashamed to listen to the group because it is popular among the masses and some people don't want to be associated with songs, which appeal to those in the lower social strata. But I notice that the young and trendy still sing Phoenix Legend's songs in KTVs."

The negative feedbacks do not bother the two singers. "Our goal is simple — to sing the songs well and have more people liking them," Ling says.

"Our music contains a lot of Chinese folk music elements, from the rhythms to the instruments. That's our distinctive style. It's wrong to say that the music is not good just because a migrant worker or a street cleaner sings it," Zeng adds.

Songwriter Zhang Chao is certain that the group's success is sustainable. "That's because their music connects with the grassroots," the Guizhou-based songwriter says.

Zhang wrote three popular songs for the group, including The Hottest Ethnic Trend and Moon Over the Lotus Pond. Before writing the songs, he conducted a research on the most popular songs in China over the last two decades and concluded that songs with folk elements always top the charts.

"Moreover, unlike most pop songs which are about love and lost, the lyrics are refreshing and uplifting, while the rhythms are simple and easy to follow," he adds.

Blending folk music with rap and hip hop elements comes naturally to Ling and Zeng.

Ling from Inner Mongolian autonomous region, whose full name is Yang Wei Ling Hua and means "clouds in the sky", grew up with folk songs and various traditional instruments.

Zeng, who was born and bred in Yiyang, Hunan province, listened to a variety of music thanks to his parents, who love singing and dancing.

When they met in 1998 at Guangzhou, both had day jobs and sang at nightclubs after work. A year later, they formed a group called Cool Fire, singing mostly Korean and American pop songs.

Ling recalls dying her hair bright red, while Zeng shaved himself bald. Both of them wore colorful and offbeat clothes to attract attention.

Their rise to fame was almost accidental. Songwriter He Muyang heard Ling's voice on TV for the first time in 2003 and was determined to look her up.

"Her high pitch is really impressive and rare," He says. "It was also rare in China to see a girl/boy group then."

After He met the duo, he rewrote Above the Moonlight, a sentimental song he wrote in 1999. "It was tailor-made for them," He says. "I believe no one could sing as well as the duo."

"It was unbelievable to have our own song at last. We spent months in the recording studio to achieve the best result. He was such a genius. He told us that combining folk with modern music elements will be our break," Ling says. "We trust him."

In 2004, the group officially signed a contract with Peacock Blue, one of the biggest record and music distribution companies in the mainland.

But, the song didn't become a hit until 2005, after the group toured more than 20 universities in China and attracted the interest of students.

Timing is the key to success. It was also about the same time that the craze to download cell phone ringtones escalated, giving the song another promotional avenue. By 2007, Above the Moonlight was downloaded more than 100 million times. Both Flying Freely and Moon Over the Lotus Pond were equally well-received.

When Phoenix Legend first started out, there was no proper plan to promote their music. Now, Phoenix Legend has Ling's husband Xu Mingchao, a former music editor of a website, in charge of promoting the duo's songs. With that in place, Phoenic Legend's unique music is set to soar higher not only domestically, but internationally.